Introduction to Amazon Openings
The following piece is by Michelle O. Fried. It was my pleasure to meet her and learn from her during my October 2008 research trip to Ecuador. Ms. Fried is an ecological public health nutritionist living in Quito, Ecuador. She is also the author of a best-selling Ecuadorian Cookbook, Comidas del Ecuador (Foods of Ecuador). (It is published in Spanish.) She was born in the United States and adopted Ecuador as her home some thirty years ago. Her adventures include experience as a Peace Corps volunteer and trainer and a World Health Programme Nutritionist. She also writes for the Food and Agricultural Organization. To view more of her writings please visit her ecological Andean Food blog: www.michelleofried.org. In addition, she writes for the Nutrinet website administered by the United Nations. To view these pieces go to www.nutrient.org and click on the link for Ecuador on the right hand side of the home page. On this site, many of her reflections relate to carnes rojas (red meats). I trust that you will enjoy Michelle’s thoughtful reflections about her recent days among people in the Amazon. I am grateful to her for giving me permission to share her words on this website.
Paulette L. Stenzel
January 16, 2009
East Lansing, Michigan
A short recent job in the Ecuadorian Amazon, only five days out of Quito, has opened me in an incredible way and I wanted to share that with all of you.
I was asked by a good friend and United Nations (UN) colleague to accompany a filming crew creating a documentary on women's health in the jungle, to translate for the UN employee the producer, originally from Hong Kong and for the camera woman, originally from Germany. (Spanish/English.) We and a team from the UN found ourselves in the recently-created province of Orellana, only thirty-five minutes from Quito by plane, but in the midst of the humid, teeming selva.
Patricia, the producer, had lots of questions to ask and even though initially I felt uncomfortable translating questions that to me seemed obvious, as time went on I realized how her thunderstorm of questions helped me learn. Having been here [for nearly thirty years] I had stopped having new eyes and thanks to Patricia they have been opened.
To help the state medical structures in the province properly serve the population, users committees had been formed, made up of women from communities (many indigenous, non-Spanish-speaking ones). They are the voices for their communities and through them and through the dedication of certain mestizo doctors, care to women is on its way to becoming culturally sensitive.
We visited three rural communities. In Palma Roja, an hour’s canoe ride down the Napo , a tributary of the Amazon, the community health promoter introduced us to two pregnant women. After lots of dialogue they literally showed us how they give birth and described why they don’t want to make use of the state health facilities where they can’t give birth on their knees, gripping a rope made out of vines from the jungle. Birthing for them is a family, community affair and their loved ones are there for them, giving them appropriate herbal drinks, supporting them, pressing the baby down and out. Between contractions they sit on the edge of a low stool and are held by their husband or mother or someone they want to be near. Never does anyone touch inside them or look inside them and they [feel] shameful to have a doctor see them. So no wonder they don’t want to go to the Western medical facilities where they fear being alone and being touched inside by a stranger.
Many of them do accept hospital treatment in cases of emergencies, however. Presently in Ecuador a law gives women the right to free prenatal and postnatal maternity care. In Palma Roja, staff members linked to the municipality where there is a hospital and to the Users Committees, help convince women to take advantage of the hospital and describe the symptoms that could be dealt with in the hospital to avoid maternal deaths. The law provides free emergency transportation, as well. This includes canoe rides, which are which are normally expensive, are provided at the moment the women need them.
Loreto is a small town where an active non-governmental organization (NGO or non-profit) has been adapting the health center to meet indigenous women’s needs since 1987. There, thanks to international funding, a woman and her family can arrive to wait for the birth, and be housed and fed in a round house, similar to their own. Women who live at huge distances, such as four or five hours on foot and then four or five more by canoe can take advantage of this “waiting” home. Then in the birthing home, arrangements have been made for them to give birth just like at home, kneeling and with the rope. This facility is beside the regular OB/GYN facility, and the women can choose which way they want to give birth. Given any complication the entire medical team is at hand to help.
In Tiwino a Huarani community near the oil pipeline, we filmed a woman telling the birth myth. She, in a hammock with community woman around her, told of a mouse that rescued an one of her tribe’s ancestors during a difficult childbirth. After the mouse presented the woman with her newly-born, the mouse asked the woman to teach her sisters how to give birth, just as the mouse had taught her.
The teller of the tale had bright eyes and with no hand gestures told the story in a light, lilting rhythm, full of humor and chuckles. (A Huarani girl who could speak Spanish translated the myth from Huarani to Spanish so I could then translate it into English. )
I was taken by the eyes of the jungle people, their innocence, their openness, their gentleness -- people who only recently have had contact with “civilization.” [They are] people who cannot separate their lives from the lives of their communities. Therefore, it is very understandable that their biggest complaint about modern society is the aloneness they experience when they venture out of their communities.
We even got to hike through the jungle to a yuca (cassava, manioc) field and see the harvest of enormous “hands” of the brown, hairy root. When hunting produces no meat or fish (which is most of the time), a fermented drink made out of cooked and chewed yuca is the mainstay. I have to admit its flavor is not at all to my liking, nor its grey color. And to top it off, it must have very little nutrition (but at least no salt or sugar). The population needs to learn new eating techniques, just to stay alive and well.
I would very much like to develop a nutritional project with these people, to help them make good use of foods of the jungle and to help them avoid buying into the industrialized food world which is already producing over-nutrition and obesity for some of them.
Michelle O. Fried
January 6, 2009